Edging my way into my thirties I thought I’d reflect and share some of the lessons from my recent book Winners Don’t Cheat: Advice for young Australians from a young Australian (Connor Court Publishing, 2018).
A slow start out of high school, and not being able to get into university after eleven attempts, certainly refined my appreciation for adversity. But I worked through my international relations degree and things began to turn around. I had gone from a very poor writer with virtually no skills or experience to working under three prime ministers at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and then the United Nations and the Australian aid program. I also went from barely getting any professional in-roads to working for the Lord Mayor of Brisbane, in offshore security operations and for a senior state Minister for Education. I even fought an election, running a tough personal campaign for public office.
But in looking back at the start of the journey I see this is where all young Australians, and everyone at some stage in their career, can find themselves. So (before I get too old!) here are my brief lessons to share.
1. Don’t choose role models that only look like you
The black American comedian Chris Rock, reflecting on his time before becoming a global superstar, said that “Everybody needs to see a version of themselves do something, it’s just good, it makes you feel like you can do it.”
But my key observation is – seek role models from a variety of sectors, which enables you to cast your net of motivation a lot wider. From time to time I’ve heard many young people immediately disqualify themselves by saying that university or various careers are ‘not for us’ – a view based entirely on complexion and current capability over any desire or will. They don’t see anyone that looks like them in a certain profession and sense ‘I can’t do that’. I know it because I’ve been there.
But there are literally tens of thousands of role models to choose from. Personally, for example, I motivated myself by examining the logic of neuroscientists like Sam Harris, the perseverance of political leaders like John Howard, the written words of soldiers like Patrick Leigh Fermour, and the courage of political pioneers like Australia’s first Aboriginal parliamentarian Neville Bonner. Never does a role model have to look like you, or be from your sector, to help inspire your own path to achievement and success.
2. Look ‘down the road’ but don’t get too carried away
When finally arriving at university I was still far off from being the most diligent student. I did my best to take notes and study but couldn’t quite get there. My writing was also poor and my first semester finished with barely passable grades that, in all likelihood, reflected lenient marking.
But I then caught a bug that I think’s essential to any degree of success – I looked ‘down the road’ and saw what it takes to get better. I didn’t just study world beaters in international affairs – the Condoleezza Rices or Colin Powells of the world (people in vogue at the time) – I studied the students who got into the best graduate programs, and read the biographies of the notable young professionals working across community, private, military and government sectors.
One has to be careful about comparing one’s self to others. But all of these people, I observed, never wasted their time at university. They clearly got good grades but also studied hard, contributed to their communities and were solid all-rounders in a range of disciplines. Importantly, they brought skills and ‘value add’.
So I set out to do the same. By reading as much as I could I became a much better student. In getting better grades I was slowly able to see signs of improvement, which helped in keeping me motivated to sustain my reading habits and steadily improve. And having both ‘near’ and ‘far’ role models to propel me was a way to help pull me through.
In spending years studying role models I’ve also found that we need to emulate our heroes for what they’ve done not really for who they are – Tiger Woods’ five hour a day regimen, for example, not his approach to fidelity.
In applying the lessons of role models, you shouldn’t be distracted from your own goals, capabilities and attitudes. If you doggedly follow someone you look up to (or even your friends or colleagues), it’s easy to get carried away with their success and not your own carefully calibrated standards. Aptitude and slowly finding out what you’re good at are key in this process.
3. Think ‘responsibilities’ and not ‘rights’
In looking back on my 20s, I feel that belief is what many things boil down to. Albert Einstein said that the first and most basic question all people must answer is “Is the world a friendly place?”. If young people decide that the world is unfriendly then, most likely, that’s what the world will be – offensive, unequal and unfair. To see the world through this lens is a sure-fire way to be miserable and you want to avoid it at all costs.
3.1 Build good habits
“First forget inspiration,” said the late novelist Octavia Butler. “Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t.”
It’s a great quote and, once I read it, I understood that seeking happiness isn’t the main game as you’re not going to be happy all of the time. But forming good habits early can set you in good form to keep persisting when you’re not feeling amped up.
One example of a habit I’ve formed from years of reading is tabbing the books I read and taking notes out of them. I extract more from some books over others. I took about 2,500 words of notes from Nick Cater’s The Lucky Culture, for example, but only 600 words from Rupert McGuiness’ biography of the rugby player George Smith. This process is certainly not fun but it helps me improve. And it has become so much of a habit that, whenever I read a book, I’m never not able to capture its teachings.
3.2 Remind yourself of how powerful a vision can be
Habits can help you hit ‘autopilot’ through stormy seas but what can really pick you up sometimes is reminding yourself of what a better, more improved, more effective and more experienced version of you can look like in five years’ time (or any time in the future).
I saw the actor Matthew McConaughy say recently that his hero when he was younger was actually himself in ten years – a thought that he keeps current through to today. “I’m never going to be my hero,” he says, “but I’m fine with that because it keeps me to someone to keep on chasing.”
Your vision, however small, can help motivate your current circumstances and remind you to have faith that things can get better. This vision can be hard to access but when it strikes a chord, and is realistic and ‘in reach’, can be powerful. And even if you don’t quite get there, or if things turn out differently, the fact that you possess targeted aspirations actually places you in a special league. “The calamity isn’t to have dreams unfulfilled,” the old saying goes, “but to have no dreams to reach for.”
So, I thank you for reading, and I have many more lessons to share in Winners Don’t Cheat, available here.